The following piece is an extract from The Football Code: The Science of Predicting the Beautiful Game. The book is available to buy on Amazon from Thursday 7th September.
Michael Lewis’s famous book Moneyball tracks one of the greatest successes in predictive history. One which helped a baseball team with a budget of roughly $44million compete against clubs with a $125million pay-roll.
There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening
– Peter Brend, assistant general manager at the Oakland Athletics baseball team, in Aaron Sorkin’s film adaptation of Lewis’ book.
Oakland’s financial disadvantage to other teams in the league means they must play by different rules in order to achieve the same success. If they do not innovate, adapt and gamble, their final position in the table will reflect their financial situation and they will be rooted to the bottom of the league.
The central hypothesis of Moneyball is that the traditional methods used by baseball insiders (in particular those of managers, coaches and scouts) over the past century were subjective and often flawed.
Beane believed that the future of baseball lay in a broader statistical approach based on numerical models, rather than the traditional scouting methods which had dominated the sport for over a century. The Oakland A’s’ realised that the methods used by every other team were outdated, and they used this to their advantage. They developed more analytical gauges of player performance to field a side that could better compete against their far richer opponents. Beane’s approach revolutionised the sport of baseball.
The question is often posed, “Why has Moneyball taken so long to come to football?” This query not only refers to the unnatural scepticism within football to embrace statistical analysis as a form of scouting, but the fact that, as of yet, there has been no footballing equivalent of the Oakland A’s. There has been no Billy Beane to have revolutionised the sport of football. There has been no identification of a key undervalued metric which could change the way the sport is played. That is, until now.
The strategy of using statistical analysis to gauge the true skill of baseball players has been proven to work. The first team to master the same approach in football will gain an enormous edge over the competition. Billy Beane’s revolutionary style of looking at baseball came about well over a decade ago, so why has football been lagging so far behind? It’s not as though people haven’t been searching for it; a plethora of journalists and analysts have all dedicated themselves to finding “the secret formula”.
The answer is that baseball and football are very different sports. Whilst baseball consists of only a few, easily definable actions (the pitch, the swing of the bat and the fielding of the ball being the key events), football is a lot more fluid. This makes it hard to know where to look when it comes to creating statistical models. When it came to separating the truth from the noise, Billy Beane was looking for a needle in a haystack. Football analysts are looking for a needle in a stack of broken needle parts.
Additionally, it is logical that the best football analysts are employed by the best clubs. These top teams have so much money that there isn’t an urgent need to innovate. They don’t need to find an edge over their opponents; they already have an advantage in the form of huge amounts of wealth. The top clubs don’t need to focus their attention on finding undervalued players, they tend to concentrate on making big-name signings that keep their fans happy.
The teams who need to innovate are the ones who have a minimal pay-roll. They must adapt and evolve in order to survive. However, there is an innate fear inside football of being the first one to break the mould. The first one through the wall is always going to get bloody. Even Beane, the pioneer of baseball who revolutionised the way the game was played, was on the verge of losing his job before Oakland’s results made a miraculous turn-around. Add this risk to the difficulty of applying a mathematical philosophy to the sport of football, and you would need a very brave individual to take on the pile of broken needle parts.
The truth is that one man has already provided football’s answer to Moneyball. He has revolutionised the whole structure of his two football clubs in order to accommodate his statistically driven methods, with the ultimate aim of competing against much bigger clubs on a much smaller budget. This man’s name is Matthew Benham, and he has developed the most effective system of analysing football that the beautiful game has ever seen.
Benham worked as a trader in the city for eight years before setting up his own betting consultancy called Smartodds. This company collects innovative data, which it then sells to professional gamblers. Benham’s statistically-driven methods are also used by Smartodds to place bets of their own, allowing the company to make millions of pounds through accurately predicting the outcome of football matches. Smartodds made Benham enough money to buy the football club he has supported since childhood; Brentford FC.
When Benham purchased the West London outfit, they were a League One side who had yo-yoed between the third and fourth divisions for the vast majority of their existence, their only real spell of success coming before the Second World War. Brentford were struggling financially when Benham decided to invest.
Attending his first Brentford game as an 11-year-old in 1979, Benham has shared an affinity with the Bees for nearly four decades. In 2012, he became owner of the West London club, bailing Brentford out of a £500,000 hole. Realising that lowly Brentford did not have the finances to compete with bigger clubs, Benham began slowly implementing an analytically-driven philosophy. He used the same approach that had made him millions in the betting markets to run the club, and, in particular, in the recruitment of players.
In 2014, Benham bought Danish club FC Midtjylland, who were in a similar financial position as Brentford were two years earlier. Virtually broke and struggling in the top flight of Danish football, Midtjylland were desperate for a backer and Benham sensed an opportunity. He transformed the Danish club into a laboratory for his revolutionary ideas and philosophies. Midtjylland’s players and coaches were sceptical of Benham’s statistical methods, but did little to oppose his takeover. They needed the money that Benham pumped into the club, realising that beggars couldn’t be choosers.
Benham has used the radical methods that brought him success as a trader and in the betting world in order to bring success to both Brentford and Midtjylland. Both of these clubs have hugely over-achieved since Benham took over. A year after Benham bought them, FC Midtjylland won the Danish Superliga for the first time in their history.
In the process they qualified for the early stages of the Europa League. In order to progress to the group stage, they had to overcome Southampton, a club of much greater size and wealth, over two legs. They managed a 2-1 aggregate win which saw them qualify for the group stage of the competition for the first time in their history. They progressed through to the knock-out stage, before being drawn against Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United, a club that had won the treble the year before the Danish side were formed in 1999. Midtjylland pulled off one of the upsets of the decade to defeat United 2-1 in the first leg of the tie, but were comfortably beaten at Old Trafford in the second leg.
The resemblances between Billy Beane’s influence at the Oakland A’s and Matthew Benham’s impact on FC Midtjylland and Brentford have been uncanny. Benham’s two teams could be considered footballing equivalents of the Oakland. They are both comparatively small, financially timid clubs who were tasked with competing against much bigger sides. Something needed to change in order to take the clubs to the next level.
Whilst the success of Brentford and Midtjylland may seem insignificant when compared to the giants of the sport, they are two of the most overachieving sides in the whole of Europe. Fans and the media consider success in terms of how many trophies a team wins. Manchester United and Liverpool are often the given examples for English football’s most successful ever sides.
However, a more accurate gauge of success would be attained by looking at the performance of teams compared to their expected performance based on finances. Manchester United and Liverpool, and Chelsea and Manchester City in more modern times, are extremely wealthy sides. Success, as it is traditionally assessed, is guaranteed for such clubs. Players are drawn to money like moths to a flame, meaning the clubs who can pay the highest wages will undoubtedly be the most successful. Outside of the media attention, there are clubs much more deserving of praise, clubs who should be commended for overachieving.
Should one assign each team an expected league position based on finances and compare it to their actual position in the EFL, Brentford’s three consecutive top ten finishes in the Championship would render them one of the most overachieving teams in footballing history. In their most recent campaign, the 2016/17 Championship season, Brentford had a wage budget of roughly £172k per week. This meant that they were ranked 21st out of the twenty-four teams financially. Only three sides spent less on player wages than the West London outfit. The average amount that Championship clubs spent per week on player salaries in 2016/17 was £375k. This meant that the average team could have bankrolled Brentford’s player wages twice over. The Bees finished above teams like Aston Villa (who spent £951k per week), Cardiff City (£440k), Nottingham Forest (£339k), QPR (£402k) and Wolves (£444k).
Brentford’s finances should have seen them fighting a relegation battle. Benham’s analytical system and innovative approach to football meant they were able to finish in the top ten of the Championship. To put this achievement into perspective, the average wage budget of the other nine teams in the top ten was £511k, three times larger than Brentford’s. Bear in mind the Bees also finished 9th in 2015/16, and an incredible 5th in 2014/15. Benham’s system has consistently enabled Brentford to defy the odds.
It may seem strange that the Oakland Athletics achieved such prominence within the sport of baseball so quickly, whilst Brentford have almost completely slipped under the radar of the footballing world. This can be explained by the fact that, whilst the Oakland A’s are competing against fourteen other teams in Major League Baseball, Brentford are essentially competing against ninety-one other teams in the English Football League. It is easier to spot an overachieving team in a smaller league than in a large one.
The fact that Brentford are able to slip under the radar allows their pioneering methods to go unnoticed. The Bees share the limelight with almost one hundred other professional sides, meaning that Benham and his club are able to hide in the shadows of football’s giants. Billy Beane’s methods were outed fairly quickly because his Oakland team had nowhere to hide. The English football media pay little attention to teams outside of the top divisions of European football, allowing Benham’s revolutionary analytical approach to remain virtually undetected.
Just as Beane overcame his critics and revolutionised the sport of baseball, so too does Benham appear to be doing the same in the sport of football. Brentford’s incredible record is down to the revolutionary statistical methods that their owner has deployed. Benham has shown that, by exploiting the many inefficiencies that exist within football, any team has the potential to overachieve.